Ex-KU star Pollard says of ‘Jayhawkers’: ‘I’m a history guy. And it made me think.’

Justin Wesley brings an 'understated' approach to his role as Wilt Chamberlain.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Scot Pollard isn’t Gene Hackman. And "Jayhawkers" isn’t "Hoosiers."

"This isn’t just a basketball film," Pollard, the former Kansas and NBA big man-turned-pundit/producer/actor, tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "(It’s) mostly a movie about Wilt Chamberlain and (ex-KU coach) Phog Allen. Not just because (Wilt) was the greatest basketball player of all time, not just because he was the greatest prize to have, (but) also because he was black (in the 1950s)."

Pollard was a co-producer and has a small role — portraying another former Jayhawk big man, B.H. Born — in the independent film, which makes its Midwest premiere Friday at the Lied Center on KU’s Lawrence campus.

"Jayhawkers," co-written, directed and co-produced by KU professor and filmmaker Kevin Willmott, is a dramatization of Chamberlain’s recruitment to Lawrence and his at-times complicated relationship with the KU community, coaches Allen and Dick Harp, and then-university chancellor Frank Murphy. The All-American center averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds per game from 1956-58 for the Jayhawks, leading KU to the NCAA title game against North Carolina in 1957.

"I’ll tell you what it’s not about — it’s not just a basketball movie, and that’s what I found out when I watched it," says Pollard, who played at KU from 1993-97 and for 11 seasons in the NBA after that. "I didn’t get to see the whole filming; even though I’m in it, I didn’t know what the final product was going to be (like).

"And when I watched it, I was pleasantly surprised. I learned some things. I learned some things about Kansas in the 1950s. But if you’re just a basketball fan and you’re expecting just a basketball movie, you’re going to be surprised. It was much different than I thought it was going to be, and I had a part in making it.

"It made me think. I’m a history guy. And it made me think."

Pollard has known Willmott for several years, having played a small part in one of his earlier films, "Destination: Planet Negro." They’re putting the pieces together for another project, a picture loosely based on Pollard’s decade-plus stint in the NBA, a career spent primarily as a backup center-slash-cut-up.

Former KU star Scot Pollard says that when you see Justin Wesley’s performance, ‘I think you see Wilt.’

And while we’re on the subject of cut-ups, Pollard has played a few of those lately as well — literally, in the case of the independent horror flick "The Axeman at Cutter’s Creek," in which he appears in the very large, very creepy title role. His part in "Jayhawkers" is different; the former KU standout jokes that he gets about "three seconds of actual screen time" in the movie as Born, who was central in helping to get Chamberlain to Lawrence in the first place.

Pollard also served as a technical consultant/coach on the film, helping actors learn to play basketball (1950s-style basketball, anyway) and basketball players learn to act. And speaking of the latter, just how good is Justin Wesley, the current Kansas basketball reserve making his movie-acting debut, in the pivotal role of Chamberlain?

"For Justin, he’s a very understated kind of actor," Willmott says. "And that’s the thing I really like about this performance from him — it’s very understated. He tends to underplay the thing, which is always the better choice for a new actor.

"And I think that, for my money, I think that when you see Justin’s performance in the film, you kind of understand — I think you see Wilt. I believe him as Wilt. Obviously, we made him to look like Wilt; he has a physical kind of connection to Wilt — he’s built kind of like Wilt, only smaller, obviously (Chamberlain was 7-foot-1; Wesley is 6-9).

"I think Wilt, he was a gregarious guy; that’s what term you sort of hear describing him. But at the same time, I think he could be quiet, and I think he was already kind of introspective. Wilt liked to be alone. He liked to drive across the country by himself. So those kind of people like that, obviously, there’s a low-key, understated quality about them as well, and I think Justin really captures that."

In fact, Pollard liked Wesley’s performance so much, he’s roped him in to play a part in his next project, once the current player’s basketball obligations are finished in the spring.

"He’s not going to be the next Scot Pollard," Pollard cracks. "Justin is very tall and very skinny, but he’s also good-looking and he’s talented, so he could possibly play different roles other than just serial killer, bad guy and basketball player. So I could absolutely see him having a career if that’s what he wanted to do in acting.

"If Justin hadn’t been good, obviously, as one of the main characters, the movie would have struggled. I really think Justin did a phenomenal job of playing Wilt Chamberlain at this point in his life. It’s not a ‘Wilt Chamberlain movie.’ It’s just the whole thing — the whole ball of wax. It’s living in Lawrence, Kansas, in the 1950s. It’s a black-and-white thing. You don’t want a caricature to come in and play the big-time this, the egotistical that; it would have detracted from the overall theme of the film. I think Justin did a masterful job of not just fitting into the role of Wilt, but fitting into the role of the whole movie."

Kip Niven plays Chamberlain’s coach, Phog Allen.

"Jayhawkers" doesn’t pull punches in terms of depicting race relations inside and around Lawrence in the early 1950s. As seen in the trailer, which debuted on FOXSportsKansasCity.com last month, a young Chamberlain in one scene is pulled over by police; in another, he appears to be accosted by a white owner or patron in a restaurant. But Willmott says it also underscores the vision of Murphy, and his hopes that Chamberlain’s presence might accelerate tolerance, cooperation and integration in the campus community and beyond.

"The big surprise about him is that he was really ahead of the game, someone who saw it a lot earlier than a lot of other people saw it," Willmott says. "(He is) the one who uses the power and celebrity of Wilt to really open up and change things."

The movie was screened for Allen’s family, and Willmott says they came away pleased. The filmmaker tosses an assist to KU basketball coach Bill Self, as well, for suggesting Wesley to play the part of Chamberlain.


"I mean, this is my first real ‘family’ film, in a lot of ways," chuckles Willmott, whose oeuvre includes satirical fare such as "C.S.A: The Confederate States of America," an examination of what the United States might look like if the South had won the Civil War.

"I think audiences, and I think Wilt’s family, will really like the film. I can’t speak for them, obviously. I think it shows Wilt in a very positive light. You don’t do any historical figure a favor just by making them look perfect, because then, in essence, they aren’t as interesting, unfortunately. And Phog and Wilt and Coach Harp and Chancellor Murphy — all of them were complicated, interesting, important people."

After this weekend, Willmott says the plans are to take the film around the East Coast festival circuit and, later this year, bring it back to Kansas for a series of in-state screenings, with perhaps a longer stay in Lawrence to follow.

"I think (audiences will) see that Wilt Chamberlain was a real hero," the filmmaker says. "Obviously, he led an amazing life, but in my opinion, I think this (was) the most dramatic part of his life, in terms of overcoming the obstacles that were in his way. And he’s a young man — he’s 18, 19 years old when he arrives here, and he has to become a civil rights leader in a lot of ways, and there’s no example to go by."

 

"Jayhawkers" will make its Midwest premiere Friday night on the KU campus with showings at 7 and 9 p.m. at the Lied Center. Additional screenings are slated for Saturday at 11 a.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.. For tickets, visit www. lied.ku.edu/events or the Lied Center Ticket Office. For more information on the movie, visit www.facebook.com/JayhawkersMovie.

Jay Karnes as KU Chancellor Frank Murphy in a rainy conversation with Wesley’s Chamberlain.

 

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.